There is a Jewish response to Michael Brown and Eric Garner

Judaism’s stance on justice is most succinctly put in the first verses of Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-20. Two phrases are of special importance: mishpat tzedek, which literally means righteous judgment, and tzedek, tzedek tirdof, usually translated as “justice, justice, shall you pursue.”

Mishpat tzedek is the intersection of the legal process and righteousness. It instructs us to move beyond justice to true righteousness. According to the Chasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunim, in the second phrase the repetition of the word tzedek means that the methods we use to pursue justice must also be just.

These things should always coincide, but tragically, we know that all too often they do not. America may have the best justice system in the world, but it is clearly broken. It’s broken in the mishpat sense and in the tzedek sense, as the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases make all too clear.

The mishpat part is certainly broken. Mishpat carries the double meaning of justice and sentence, both the kind you write and the kind that is handed down by a judge. We must admit that we do not know the full details of either of these two cases, but any glance at the statistics of African American men show just how terribly broken our system is, whether you are looking at rates of incarceration, length of sentence or any other measure.

The tzedek part is even more broken. My experience with police is that 99.9 percent of them are good, hardworking people. Few of us can understand the fraction of a second they have to figure out how to protect their own life and the lives of others, and sometimes they make fatal mistakes. But that’s little comfort for the families of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the other African Americans who have met with similar violence.

Almost every Jew I know has a story about an anti-Semitic incident that occurred in his or her life. Well, every African American has a similar story, and it’s usually much more violent and often comes at the hands of authority figures.

Therefore, our Jewish empathy should be stirred, because there is a strong link between the fear that African Americans in this country feel today and the fear that Jews have felt throughout our history. It is the link of an existential threat.

When Jews see rockets falling on Israel, when we read Hamas’ charter, even when we hear otherwise rational people saying, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” we think – existential threat. We move quickly to a tape in our historical memory that includes pogroms and expulsions and Kristalnacht and Auschwitz.

To an outsider this seems irrational. Israel has the Iron Dome and one of the bravest and most technologically advanced armies in the world. How can it be subject to an existential threat? But we know there are people who want to wipe Israel off the map and maybe even Jews off the Earth.

When white Americans see Mike Brown shot eight times or Eric Garner repeating that he can’t breathe over and over, we think it’s tragic and unfair, certainly. But to African Americans, these cases pose an existential threat. Just as Jews move to a certain mental tape, so do African Americans – a tape that includes Ku Klux Klan rallies and cross burnings and lynchings, often at the hands of police and mayors and judges. And while maybe those aren’t common occurrences anymore, they still really do happen, and I’m not sure it would take all that much in certain quarters to make things just as horrible as they were a generation or two ago.

We Jews must also follow the mitzvah of Lo ta’amod dam re’icha, or “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is shed.” For some that means protesting in the streets. Because of the propensity for even the most peacefully intentioned protests to turn violent, I personally prefer methods like that of eighth-grader Simone Rotman, a member of my congregation, who followed the lead of the “Christmas Menorah.”

When I was serving as a student rabbi in Montana in 1993, someone threw a brick into the window of the home of a Jewish family celebrating Chanukah in the town of Billings. The entire town stood up against it, and the local newspaper printed a picture of a menorah, encouraging all residents to place it in their window during the remainder of Chanukah.

In the spirit of that response, Simone created this beautiful drawing (see below). She originally drew it as part of a video she made for a national contest from the Jewish camping movement.

I would like to encourage all of us to print out her picture and put it in our windows for the remaining nights of Chanukah as a sign of our support for change in the way African Americans and other minorities are treated in America. You can fill in the blank line with either “black” lives matter or “all” lives matter or whatever you wish. I leave that decision to you.

I believe this is something all of us should be concerned with, and I think putting this drawing in our windows sends a powerful, personal message of hope in consonance with the spirit of Judah and the Maccabees.

So let us pursue justice and righteousness. Let us work toward a just society. Let us not stand idly by while our neighbors’ blood is shed. And if we do nothing else, we must have empathy for the existential threats our brothers and sisters face – in Ferguson, in New York, and right here in the Bay Area.

Rabbi Mark Bloom is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.